The prospect of a hurricane bearing down on next week's Republican National Convention became a genuine concern Tuesday as Tropical Storm Isaac formed in the Atlantic Ocean and loomed as a threat to Florida.
Expected to become a hurricane within two days, Isaac could be at or near Cuba by Sunday. From there, several forecasters expect it to head north.
It is too early to predict whether Isaac could hit Tampa head on. But experts agree that the Republican National Convention, which officially begins Monday, probably will be affected in some way.
"People have no idea what to expect," National Hurricane Center forecaster Todd Kimberlain said Tuesday. "Everyone needs to be especially vigilant going into next week."
Traveling at 18 mph, the storm is being held to a westerly course by an Atlantic high pressure system to its north. That system eventually will weaken, allowing Isaac to veer north.
The question is when?
In one scenario, Isaac could turn north over eastern Cuba and skim, or completely miss, Florida and the East Coast.
The more likely case, experts said, is that Isaac will turn north later and either hit Florida or drift west of the state and into the Gulf of Mexico.
With hurricanes, a few miles can make a huge difference.
"Having that storm move into the Gulf of Mexico would be a huge deal," Bay News 9 chief meteorologist Mike Clay said. "If it moves up the East Coast, we could still get some weather, some power outages, some wind and rain, but we wouldn't be talking about loss of life."
The prospect of a tropical storm has done little to dampen the spirits of convention planners. Tampa Bay Host Committee president Ken Jones is overseeing plans for a huge welcome party at Tropicana Field on Sunday but said he's confident in emergency planners and is not nervous.
"I think you live in Florida, you deal with weather," said Jones, who has lived in the state since 1976. "If an eventuality of weather occurs, we will take care of it. It will not be a problem."
RNC officials would not go into specifics about "contingency plans" for the more than 50,000 visitors expected for the convention, noting the U.S. Secret Service would coordinate any emergency response.
"Obviously this scenario has been discussed knowing that we're going to be in Tampa in August," said Secret Service spokesman George Ogilvie. "But we've been working this for well over a year, and we've planned for any and all contingencies."
If a tropical storm or hurricane does hit next week, Tampa city officials have said, the response would be well-coordinated, drawing on resources from all over Florida.
Convention visitors are being encouraged to sign up for the city's Alert Tampa mass-messaging system, which can send emergency notifications and updates to home phones, cell phones or email addresses.
"We have an emergency plan dealing with the weather," Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said Tuesday. "It's something that we're not unfamiliar with on a yearly basis, and we are tracking all of the storms that are out there in the ocean right now."
Local agencies will work with federal officials to ensure the safety of everyone in Tampa, but their priority will be aiding local residents.
"It's our role to deal with the residents of Hillsborough County," said Hillsborough County Emergency Management spokesman Willie Puz. "It's (the RNC committee's) role to work with the convention."
Local officials will meet with National Weather Service forecasters Thursday to better determine how the storm could affect Tampa Bay.
As for the convention itself, the Republican Party's rules allow the chairman of the convention to permit some roll call votes to be taken by telephone, computer or other electronic means.
In the most extreme cases, the rules say that if the convention "cannot convene or is unable to conduct its business" at its site or in the chosen city, then and only then can there be an alternate method for the roll call votes to name the presidential and vice presidential nominees. The rules do not specify the procedure but say it must be authorized by the Republican National Committee.
Marissa Lang can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804 or on Twitter @Marissa_Jae.